A word with BMI

A word with BMI

Samantha Cox is the Executive Director of Creative at BMI.  As the process of getting paid as a songwriter tends to be complicated I thought she would be interesting to speak to about how it all works from her perspective on the inside of one of the major PROs (Performing Rights Organization) in the U.S.

Music Consultant:

You are the executive director of creative at BMI, tell me what the creative department at a performing rights organization is about. What does your job entail?

SC:

My job mainly consists of A&R, management/administration and events planning.  That means, first, maintaining relationships with the songwriters and publishers that we currently represent while acquiring new talent.  Secondly, putting together everything from showcases and panels at conferences and festivals to speaking at universities. And finally there’s management/administration which involves affiliating songwriters and publishers, registering their works, helping to put their team together, hooking up co-writes, working with attorneys, producers, booking agents and music supervisors and above all making sure the artists get paid.  I could go on and on but that’s the big picture gist of it.

Music Consultant:

Let’s talk about that. It’s not even just kids fresh out of art school who don’t do this correctly.  It is often musicians that have been playing for years and years and have never set up their corporation correctly. What do you need to do to be properly paid by your PRO?

SC:

The first thing to do is sign up as a writer and publisher at BMI.com.  It’s super easy and every songwriter should take the 20 minutes and do it.  Basically what everyone needs to know is that you need to sign up as a writer, sign up as a publisher and register your songs if you want to get paid.  Then when you start getting airplay – whether it’s radio, TV, the internet, whatever — you’re good to go.  I can’t tell you the number of really smart people who overlook this basic step and end up missing out on performance royalties.  Go to the website, click “join” and follow the instructions.  If you have questions, we’re here to help.  But the minute you’re done, you’re in the game.

Music Consultant:

Do you need to set up a formal corporation or can you do it under your social security number or…

SC:

It really depends on who you are.  For the vast majority of writers, I advise setting up individually owned companies using their social security numbers. If your career is farther along and you have a business manager or an entertainment attorney, they may advise you to set up a corporation or LLC.  But what’s important to remember is that the moment you write a song, you are the owner of that song and therefore the  publisher of that song.  Now what you want is to get paid for that song.  That’s where we come in.

Music Consultant:

So when people do deals with a large publishing company, they are basically doing a deal for the publisher’s share, and it was divided that way so artists wouldn’t get ripped off. Correct me if I’m wrong.

SC:

That’s absolutely right.

Music Consultant:

Just a few more basic questions about the way money moves to the artist.  BMI pays their artists and they collect this money by laying down a blanket fee on radio stations, TV channels and so on and so forth.  Companies have to pay to play music – live venues, different websites, etc., etc., and that’s where all the money comes from, correct?

SC:

Pretty much.  BMI collects license fees on behalf of our songwriters, composers and music publishers and distributes them as performance royalties.  I think it’s important to remember that BMI operates on a non-profit-making basis so we’re not out to make money like a record company or publishing company.  We don’t own the songs or recordings.  We just enter into an arrangement where we collect and distribute royalties on behalf of our songwriters and publisher.

Music Consultant: How is that enforced on the local level?

SC:

Basically there are a few different ways.  TV stations and internet sites provide us with detailed performance logs.  Radio stations, we use a complex sampling system that’s proven super accurate over time.  Concert venues are up to the artists to provide set lists.  And everything else – airlines, sporting arenas, etc. – pay blanket license fees.  On the really local level, we actually have people who walk into restaurants and sit there listening to music just to keep everybody honest.

Music Consultant:

There are really only three companies in the U.S. that do this; to my knowledge it’s ASCAP, BMI and SESAC.  As a result you must see and meet tons of people.  From your perspective, what are some of the mistakes that you see artists making?

SC:

I’d say the biggest one is that songwriters don’t really utilize us like they can.  Not only can we help administratively but we can help creatively. We do showcases and panels and seminars and they can get involved with all of these. Especially the educational seminars. They’re open to everyone. We do them about every other month, sometimes more often.  We just did one about production.  How do you produce a record?  How do you get a producer?  It was awesome and we got a ton of positive feedback.

Music Consultant:

That sounds great.

SC: It’s really exciting. That’s the great part about this job. When it comes to the creative side it’s a lot of fun.

Music Consultant:

I hear a very common gripe:  “I can’t get anyone on the phone at BMI or ASCAP.” Is the best way to make a relationship is to attend one of the things?

SC:

I think it’s a great way to do it. I have to admit it’s hard to get people on the phone at BMI or ASCAP. We operate on a non-profit basis so our staff is limited.  I do my best to return every phone call and email that comes in, but it can be overwhelming.  I could answer emails 24 hours a day, seven days a week and still not get to everyone. That’s why I encourage persistence and patience.  It may take a while, but eventually I, or someone else, will get back to you.

Music Consultant:

Now the tough question. Why BMI?

SC:

That’s a great question. The U.S. is unique in that we have three performing rights societies.  Everywhere else in the world, there’s one per territory.  I think it’s great that here in the United States you have a choice.  Basically, my answer is that it comes down to relationships.  You want to know that there’s someone inside the company who can not only walk you through the process of affiliating but can guide you creatively.  Someone to push you in the right direction.  Someone who believes in you and your music.  It’s extremely important to have an advocate. Everyone always asks me, “Does one pay out more than the other?”  Well, if one paid out more than the other, everyone would run to that society.  We all pay out pretty much the same.  So, again, it just reinforces what I’ve already said – relationships are key.  That’s why I spend so much time getting to know our writers, to learn what they want to do and figure out how to help them get there.

Music Consultant:

Here’s another question. All of the changes with the record business that are leaking into the publishing business and leaking into the touring business; how is the big shift in technology starting to affect BMI and performance royalties organizations? Are you starting to feel that shakiness? Does that really affect you, other than the fact that so many of our peers are now freelance?

SC:

I have to say we’ve been very fortunate in the business that we’re in.  In the past, we negotiated some very good radio and TV deals.  Our income has continued to go up steadily. We’re about to renegotiate another radio deal soon, which could affect some of that, but we feel we’re in a strong position and feel good about the future.

Music Consultant:

Is that a blanket negotiation or something specific within the radio industry? When you say you’re renegotiating a radio deal, is that with radio in general or just a large conglomerate?

SC:

It’s not just one specific radio station; it’s a conglomerate of radio stations.  Let’s face it, their advertisement dollars are shrinking and so their income is going down – and that’s where our income comes from.  We’ve taken that into consideration and have streamlined internally and cut back expenses so that our payments will continue to be strong no matter what happens.  Our goal is to have the best payments.  Yes, it’s affecting us, but I would say it’s more about the economy than technology. Technology has actually worked pretty well for us. We’re in the streaming business, not the downloading business, and the internet is becoming all about streaming.  Our internet income actually continues to get bigger each day and that’s the future.  So I’d say on that front, we’re looking pretty good.

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